West of Sicily, and a bit of Palermo

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov.

Just like goddess Venus, the island of Sicily arrived from the sea foam under our airplane’s wing in all its mature glory. It grew closer, gained distinct features and sounds upon our landing, and became a vivid reality for the next few days in sunny October, spent as if in a wondrous dream.  

The original plan, with properly booked air, hotels, and a busy itinerary, has been to visit Sicily in March. March 2020 that is. We all remember how that worked out!

With the first COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates, cancelled flights, and authoritative recommendations to isolate from the world, stop hugging people, and disinfect cardboard boxes of home-delivered foodstuffs, our travel plans were instantly erased, hopes shattered, and high spirits grounded.

Can you imagine my pure joy, the overwhelming feeling of happiness when last month I’ve heard from the West of Sicily tourism department that Italy is open to international travelers! That there are no restrictions for tourists from the U.S., and our two-and-a-half-year-old travel plan is going to come to fruition!   

Viva Italia! Viva Sicilia! West of Sicily, here we come!

And so began the most discovery-dense journey—sun-soaked, festive, delicious, and filled with salty sea air, sweetened by the warmth and kindness of the genuine Sicilian people.

The entire program of this trip, partially reflected in this story, has been prepared and implemented by the Distretto Turistico Sicilia Occidentale whose motto, “Ogni volta, una scoperta” (Every time a discovery) stays true—every step of the way (https://westofsicily.com/.)

Palermo

An overnighter in Palermo came as a quick delightful bite of the city’s offerings. What an incomparable pleasure to come to a family-owned boutique hotel Sui Tetti di Balarm at the top floor of a historic building! Located at Piazza del Ponticello, it’s close to all the major sites of the city center, from the 17th century masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque, Chiesa del Gesù (or Casa Professa) and Cattedrale di Palermo to Fontana Pretoria and Quattro Canti (Four Corners)—a Baroque square at the intersection of the two main arteries, Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, with exquisite façades and full of symbolism statuary.

There, we caught a glimpse of a film production, with actors and actresses in 19th century costumes, and horse-drawn carriages, lined up for a future epic about the Florio family—Sicilian entrepreneurs who started many local businesses from tuna fishing and canning to exporting Marsala wine and other Sicilian products, to shipbuilding, mining, and gorgeous traditional ceramics.  

Back to our cozy apartment hotel, it felt like a warm family home in every way! Clean, comfortable, beautifully decorated rooms (Roberta Murgia, proprietor, is also an artist); a lavish roof terrace with a Jacuzzi and a view of several church domes above; a rooftop garden, furnished with potted citrus plants, tables and chairs, right off the kitchen where you can indulge in tea, coffee, and homemade cakes; plus an included breakfast, served at a nearby Ponticello Taverna Gastronomica, also decorated with art pieces from local artists, andguarded by a cute little French bulldog.  

Next morning, we were off to Trapani, but even a short stay in a bustling Palermo, where history comes through at every turn in a contemporary metropolis, left its distinct mark in our hearts and minds.  If you plan to stay in Palermo, for the best ambiance, quality service and convenient location, reserve one of only four rooms at Sui Tetti di Balarm at http://sui-tetti-di-balarm-boutique-rooms.hotel-palermo-it.com/en/.

Trapani

In the West of Sicily, our every new encounter, and every story told to us by the native Sicilians from different paths of life, was like an enchanted road with many winding trails. You walk one trail—and you miss another, but walking them all in one setting is simply impossible!

The history is so ancient, rich, and layered, the land is so dear, so desired, so many times conquered and liberated, still producing tons of edible gold—wheat, citrus, grapes, eggplants, tomatoes, pistachios, almonds, olives… the traditions so multiple, so diverse, coming from different cultures… there’s no end to discoveries, and one time is surely not enough to visit, but let me share with you just a few precious gems of mementoes from the West of Sicily.   

In Trapani, while staying at a thoroughly modern, nicely furnished, minimalist Fiveplace Design Suites & Apartments with a kitchenette, and a balcony overlooking Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, we walked to Piazza Mercato del Pesce for breakfast at Brigantes Bar e Negozio Trapani.

Freshly squeezed orange juice, prosciutto sandwiches, pistachio croissants, and excellent espresso doppio, consumed al fresco, steps away from the splashing waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, made all the difference between being jet-lagged and exhilarated.

The two warm seas, Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean collide in front of the Torre di Ligny—an ancient watchtower on the very tip of the sickle-shaped peninsula of Trapani, at the end of a seaside promenade. That’s where we walked between the two seas, along the ancient city wall, Mura di Tramontana, and then watched the sun go down from the upstairs landing of Bastione Conca in a company of so many locals, who come here at this hour specifically for the view.     

Heading back to the lively city center with baroque buildings surrounding stately piazzas and open-air restaurants, we tried to absorb the very soul of the city, teaming with life, and decorated with tropical plants on wrought-iron balconies. Its narrow side streets, antique shops, and the many historic churches, among then the 1500s Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, created a tangible link between its storied past and vibrant present.

One of the most interesting retail establishments in the city center is RossoCorallo—as much an artist gallery as an antique shop, home to Platimiro Fiorenza, “the last coral craftsman,” fluent in the ancient art of carving coral, indigenous to Trapani.

The artist, born in 1944 to a goldsmith and coral master father, became involved with the workshop activities at an early age, and developed his skills to the highest level, taking his place in the Register of Intangible Heritage of Sicily, and becoming a Living Human Treasure, protected by UNESCO.

His daughter, Rosadea, continues the family tradition, deeply rooted in Trapani’s history. It was by her initiative that the RossoCorallo project started in 2012 to promote the local identity and educate the public on the Trapani’s arts and crafts.  

The highlight of our visit to RossoCorallo was a “trial of a crown” session, kindly offered by the master and his daughter. (Don’t think I was dressed and combed for the occasion, but with a delicate precious crown made of coral and diamonds upon my head, even for a brief moment, I felt royally honored nonetheless).

Another Trapani highlight came in the form of humble couscous—also a kind of pasta, but not the Italian variety. Originally coming from North Africa, the steamed grain-like tiny granules, made with semolina flour, became a staple in Sicily due to the centuries-old influences and the geographical proximity of the African continent—with all the historical consequences.

At his own restaurant, Cantina Siciliana, Chef Pino Mggiore gave us a quick cooking lesson, and then treated us to his famous creation—couscous Trapani-style, topped with seafood, and dozed with a thick delicious sauce. Chef Pino, who insists on a four-hour preparation and a meticulous cooking process for his signature dish, became a staple in various couscous competitions and festivals, and a must-visit celebrity chef for every foodie traveling through Trapani. 

Generally speaking, a Sicilian diet of eggplant Caponata, tomato bruschetta, and radicchio salad with olive oil and balsamic, alongside tuna, sardines, and anchovies, and of course pasta, like handmade by the local artisans busiate and cassatelle, all paired with sun-ripened Sicilian wines seems not only exceedingly delicious, but also healthy and satisfying. I think, we went an entire week without meat, and haven’t even missed it!

A separate praise must be given to the local traditional pastries and sweets. A wonderful souvenir from CoriRuci di Sicilia (“cori ruci” means sweetheart in Sicilian dialect) contained almond- and honey-stuffed cookies, and picturesque Frutta Martorana—marzipan confections, filled with aromatic almond paste, molded and painted like tiny pieces of peaches, watermelon, figs, strawberries, and so on.

Traditionally used as a children’s treats for the Feast of the Dead on November 1, these colorful sweets became so popular, that are now produced and consumed all year round with or without an occasion.

To learn more, and make reservation, visit https://www.fiveplace.it/, https://brigantes.eu/, https://www.corirucidisicilia.com/, https://www.cantinasiciliana.it/, https://www.platimirofiorenza.it/.

Paceco

With an abundance of open spaces, and panoramic seascapes all around, Sicily is bound to have gorgeous sunsets. The most memorable one we encountered in Paceco, a small rural town in the province of Trapani, on the salt pans of La Riserva delle Saline di Trapani e Paceco, where there’s a historical Salt Museum, dedicated to the one-thousand-year-old industry, and some well-preserved Dutch-style wind mills, used to grate “Fiore di Sale”—the finest expression of natural sea salt.

The mounds of course salt, that resemble piles of snow, are seen here and there, steps away from the shimmering planes, created by the Sicilian seawater, sun, and wind, and hand-harvested in the August heat to preserve the delicate, naturally mild, untreated flavor, delicious salinity, and valuable nutrients of Trapani’s most famous product.

A sunset here is pure liquid gold, oozing into the sea against the pearly sky that serves as a perfect backdrop for the mills, as if drafted with a pen and ink, and salt mounds that gradually change color from white to pink to golden to bluish-gray.

Favignana

From our favorite Mercato del Pesce, there’s a short walk to the port of Trapani, where we board a Liberty Lines ferry heading for Favignana—the largest of the Isole Egadi (Aegadian Islands), a picturesque group of mountainous islands in the Mediterranean Sea off the coastal cities of Trapani and Marsala.

Here, on the Favignana Island, we encounter the Florio family again. We start to understand the Palermo filmmakers’ idea of bringing up the name, achievements, and the lasting impact of the “Leoni di Sicilia” (Sicilian lions) on the local economy that resulted in more independence, business development, and job security for the local population. 

Villa Florio museum inside the former family home of the three generations of Florios, and an impressive in size and content Ex Stabilimento Florio delle Tonnare di Favignana e Formica—a museum in a historic tuna factory from 1859, showcase the importance of tuna fishery for the island, and the first ever tuna cannery, invented by the Florio family patriarch.

With a sizable distance from the central piazza of Favignana to the beautiful beaches (the coastline stretches to 32 km), and a well-paved flat road, cycling, and especially electric bike cycling is a popular mode of transportation here.

Not a bicyclist by any means, I rely on the kindness of strangers, and make a trip to the most beautiful beach on the island, Cala Azzurra on the back of an avocado-colored Vespa! All for the sake of a brief swim in the warm even in the last days of October Mediterranean Sea.  

Before leaving the picture-perfect island with its moored sailboats, an impromptu fish market by the harbor, and glorious sunny weather, we snack on arancini (traditional Sicilian rice balls, stuffed with seafood and deep fried to orange color) and a giant fish sandwich (with tuna, of course!) that must be held in both hands.

Erice

From the sea to the mountains, we’re taking Funierice, a 12-minute cableway ride to the stone-built fortified town of Erice, atop Monte San Giuliano at 751 m above the sea level. Known In ancient times as a sacred place with a temple, dedicated to goddess Venus, this unique open-air living town-museum is wonderfully preserved in all its medieval glory.

Shrouded in a light morning mist, poetically called by the locals, “a breath of Venus,” the town offers incredible panoramic views of the verdant valleys below, and unparalleled experiences, both from the distant past and today.

Erice is home to a 12th century Castello di Venere, a Norman castle built upon the remnants of the Temple of Venus, and a 14th century Chiesa Matrice, or Duomo dell’Assunta as well as to Centro per la Cultura Scientifica Ettore Majorana (Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture), an organization that sponsors the International School of Subnuclear Physics, led by professor Antonino Zichichi, and to Ledacrea Produzione Ceramica Artistica with its treasure trove of shiny colorful ceramic masterpieces.

The city’s ancient stone walls, and their three gates—Porta di Trapani, Porta del Carmine and Porta Spada—give way to a maze of narrow streets that never pose an obstacle for contemporary car drivers. Local pedestrians and multiple groups of tourists quickly learn to retreat into doorways or cling to the walls to let the cars pass.

Nestled within the ancient stone walls are multiple swanky restaurants and bakeries with bright window displays, and by the butcher shop door, two tabby cat brothers, Giovanni and Francesco, patiently wait for a compulsory treat.  

At the municipal wine shop, under the guidance of Wine President (what a position to hold!) we’re tasting the most expressive and flavorful local wines presented by Strada Del Vino Erice DOC (The Wine Road of Erice DOC).

Valderice

Descending to the Valderice (Erice Valley) we visit La Machina del Grano del Molino Excelsior, a historic milling facility from 1904, now a museum, more than a century ago used to produce the finest wheat flour with superior organoleptic characteristics, suitable for the many kinds of incomparable Sicilian pasta. An architectural relief above the entrance to the building depicts an image of goddess Ceres on a cart, pulled by an eagle, and a motto, “Industry goes through the mountains.”

Known for centuries as the Granary of Rome, Sicily put its indelible mark on Italian signature pasta dishes, making them an international staple.

We too, try our hands in making a typical local dish, cassatelle di ricotta in brodo, under the direction of Maria Catja Caradonna and her brother who together own a culinary education company, Like Italians Do.

By providing thoughtful instructions, like “you have to massage to dough until it is perfectly smooth and springy,” and plenty of valuable advice, this small family company gains friends and followers all over the world. They offer Local Experiences as well as Global Experiences, where they send boxes of ingredients to people’s homes, and then cook and dine on their creations, in a wonderful sense of togetherness. Just like we did in a small, friendly kitchen, each of us ever so slightly dusted with flour, but oh so happy to partake in the feast of tender soft cassatelle paired with Quasale, local cabernet sauvignon, produced on Casale estate in Buseto Palizzolo on the ancient Monte San Giuliano in Erice. Look up the U. S. Experiences from Like Italians Do on their website: https://likeitaliansdo.com/.

Buseto Palizzolo and Custonaci

The small rural town of Buseto Palizzolo is also home to Oleificio Mazzara, where we closely watch the entire process of harvesting ripe olives (we even pick some ourselves, and drop them to the tarp spread under an olive tree) and then extracting cold-pressed virgin olive oil. Founded in 1860, the family-owned olive mill underwent a few changes, like switching from millstones and hydraulic presses to contemporary machinery, but the finished product remains the same—the freshest, the purest, the highest quality “green gold” of Sicily.

After a short excursion to Grotta Mangiapane, an ancient settlement and a speleological site in the town of Custonaci, we make an uphill trip to Santoro Marmi—unique white marble quarries with the panoramic views of the valley below, and dramatic geometrical cliffs, cut in the process of marble production. From far away, these sparkling-white artificial cliffs look like rows of sugar cubes, with human figures as tiny as ants among them.   

That night, at Baglio Fontana we’re having another wonderful taste of Sicilian traditional pasta, this time busiate, made by hand, and wound around a little stick to keep a spiral shape. The culinary belief is that non-flat pasta absorbs the maximum amount of sauce in a dish.   

Baglio Fontana, just outside Buseto Palizzolo, is a 19th-century rural Sicilian family estate with a large farmhouse, a spacious courtyard, and farming facilities for wine and olive oil production as well as stables and other buildings. Transformed into a contemporary hotel and restaurant, the property, studded with pines and lemon trees, now has a tennis court and a swimming pool.

Our dinner consists of traditional bruschetta and Caponata, an assortment of cured meats, and delicate busiate with Trapani-style pesto, made with tomatoes and almonds.

San Vito Lo Capo and Scopello

On a shiny sunny Sicilian morning we embark on a boat trip with a small family company, Hippocampus, based in San Vito Lo Capo. Spouses Mauro and Susan—he at the helm, she manning the decks—take tourists to the most fascinating views of the West of Sicily in their white shiny boat.

A seaside village of Scopello boasts the famous Tonnara di Scopello—one of the oldest tuna fisheries with its earliest buildings dating back to the 13th century. You might recognize its silhouette from a few Hollywood films

Scopello also serves as a gateway to Riserva naturale dello Zingaro, opened in 1981—a nature reserve of 1,600 hectares that stretches for almost 4.5 miles along the shoreline. More than 800 plant species, and about 40 kinds of birds are protected here.

Even though Sicily has very few rivals when it comes to beaches, the shoreline of Scopello features the most dramatic rock formations sticking out of the sea, and the cleanest, clearest, jewel-like waters, lapping against the tiny natural inlets among the rocks.

When our boat wasn’t allowed to come too close to the beach, we just swam to it, and what a refreshing swim that was! The sea is still warm and welcoming in the fall, but the crowds of eager sunbathers subside significantly with the beginning of a school year.

Castellammare del Golfo

A charming seaside town with hilly streets, an ancient fortress, and a beyond-belief picturesque peninsula, thrust into a gulf of pure turquoise color, is called Castellammare del Golfo, which name reflects both the fortress and the sea as the primary markers of this dreamy little enclave.

Mere steps from its busy city center there’s our home away from home—Hotel Al Madarig. Recently renovated, well-equipped, quiet and comfortable, with clean rooms, nicely decorated common areas, and a generous breakfast buffet, included with the room price, the hotel is located right outside a sandy city beach. Al Madarig grants its guests an opportunity to take stairs down to the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, or walk up to the substantial pedestrian area, teeming with cafes, bars, and restaurants serving all of the lip-smacking local specialties.

Even with the abundance of amazingly delicious foods we constantly consume on this trip, our best ever lunch is happening at Castello di Inici, al fresco, between an olive grove and a vineyard, around a long table, crowded with all the house-produced fare: olive oil, wine, bread, bowls of Caponata, bruschetta, different kinds of freshly made pasta, topped with grilled zucchini or pomodoro sauce, and—for a dolce finale—golden-brown deep fried cassatelle, stuffed with sweet cottage cheese and currants.

The castle of Inici on the south side of Mount Inici in Castellammare del Golfo is known since the 16th century, when it was owned by the barons of Inici, and it still retains a set of picturesque ruins, and a vast territory of fields and groves bordered by the distant hills ( https://www.castelloinici.it/.)

Gibellina

One of the most memorable and impressive excursions on this trip has to be a visit to the hillside town of Gibellina, where massive pieces of public art dominate the streets, and a large sprawling building of Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Ludovico Corrao (Museum of Contemporary Art, or MAC) holds innumerable treasures of the 20th century paintings, sculptures, and photography.

Let’s start with the fact that the entire town is now residing at a distance from its original location. Back in 1968, Gibellina experienced a catastrophic earthquake that levelled the majority of town structures and brought about a horrific devastation.

In the aftermath of the natural disaster, the town dwellers were offered train tickets by the government to move to other places and relocate. However, the will of the people was to stay, rebuilt, and renew their native land.

The new Gibellina was built from scratch—nearby, but away from the fault line. The old one, in ruin, was transformed into a massive piece of art by sculptor Alberto Burri, who created the largest in the world art piece/memorial by covering each of the destroyed town quarters in solid white concrete, as if shrouding the entire Gibellina in a burial gown.     

This gigantic piece of art, called Grande Cretto, allows visitors to walk through it, following the exact pattern of the pre-quake town streets.  

Mazara del Vallo

Another not-to-be-missed excursion in this part of Sicily has to be to Mazara del Vallo, “the city of 100 churches,” which is also a part of living history of Arab influences, brought about by a Muslim conquest in the far-removed year 827, and by a geographical position of the city—mere 200 miles from North Africa.

From the central cathedral square with Cattedrale del Santissimo Salvadore to the maze of tiny streets and alleys, every step of the way we encounter mosaic, ceramic, and painterly art pieces, created by the local artists practically on every wall of every city building.  

The epitome of the city’s obsession with art we experience at Museo del Satiro Danzante—an entire museum, dedicated to The Dancing Satyr in the former church of Sant’Egidio. 

This large ancient Greek bronze statue depicts a dancing satyr, one of those who, according to the Greek and Roman mythology, took part in drunk worship sessions of the god of wine, pleasure, and festivity, Dionysus (Bacchus).

Presumably created in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE, possibly in Rome (which is suggested by a high percentage of lead in the bronze alloy) the satyr “was recovered from the sandy sea floor at a depth of 500 metres (1,600 ft) off the southwestern coast of Sicily, on the night of March 4, 1998, in the nets of the same fishing boat operating from Mazara del Vallo, that had in the previous year recovered the sculpture’s left leg.”

After spending a couple millennia at the bottom of the sea, the poor satyr is missing both arms and one leg, however, his head and torso are preserved remarkably well. It’s easy to guess the wild dance movement in the masterfully recreated pose, and his thrown back head with swinging hair is still striking with the alabaster whites of his eyes staring in the darkness in a drunken stupor.

A small replica of the famous satyr sculpture adorns a courtyard of a wonderful restaurant, l’Antica Sicilia (https://www.lanticasicilia.it/), where we are having our Farewell-to-Sicily feast.

Located in the historic center of Mazara del Vallo, this large and always busy restaurant with great outdoor seating, specializes in fresh fish from the Trapani coast and uses only fresh, “zero-km” ingredients in all its dishes based on original, traditional Sicilian recipes.

Local wine, anchovies and sardines, vegetables from the garden, and other culinary delights, generously shared by the Chef and his kitchen team, include the fairest of them all Gambero Rosso di Mazara (local red prawns) eaten raw, and as sweet as our best West of Sicily memories (https://westofsicily.com/).